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Indira Henard, MSW, Executive Director, DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC)
Healer. Advocate. Truth Teller.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
If there was a headline for my leadership journey it would be, “She handled it.” My leadership journey has been untraditional in a lot of senses. I recall at Wheaton when Maryanne Marsh (Class of 1979) told me that “the best laid plans are not the best laid plans.” I had everything laid out in college. I knew that my journey was supposed to be a political one. Half-way through my political career, I realized that addressing gender-based violence was near and dear to my heart. I had been doing some work on a volunteer basis and woke up to realize this is my life’s work. The best laid plans are not about that; it’s a journey about following my heart. (Indira Henard pictured at right.)
The last ten years of my career — I’ve been doing this for twenty years — has been a season of preparation. My leadership has been tried, tested, and proved. I had to move mountains in a city where it’s hard to move mountains, but the mountain is being moved and will continue to be moved. In spite of everything, I pushed my way through and “she handled it.”
What are some of your career highlights?
The biggest highlight is doing the work I do. There are not that many women of color doing this work so a big highlight has been having a group of women of color who have nurtured me, invested in me, and been that cushion I can lean into. That has been monumental in my career.
I’m really clear that I don’t always get it right and don’t know all the answers. The journey as an executive director as a Black woman is extremely lonely. It’s hard to understand what that journey is like if you haven’t been in these shoes. Women who give back have helped me and I can speak to them unfiltered. Sometimes we need to be reminded of who we are and what’s really important in the work that we do. A highlight has been having those persons who have been before me and who paved the way, upon whose shoulders I stand, answer when I call. Folks who pick up the phone when you call is a rarity — I hold that near and dear. I have tried to pay that forward by giving back to other women of color in the sector.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
Crisis. Leadership is really tested in moments of crisis. There are some moments in leadership that you cannot prepare for, and for me those are biggest challenges. The biggest challenge I’ve been able to resolve is repositioning our agency. We are the only rape crisis center in Washington, DC and the oldest rape crisis center in the country. Our reputation in the community was not that great when I assumed leadership. It was a crisis to shift the narrative, shift people’s energy, and get people back on our side. There is nothing more challenging and no crisis bigger than stepping in as executive director when the community wants your head or your agency on the chopping block. During my first 90 days, I spent lot of time building community and owning what did not happen on my watch. I’m good at managing relationships and people, so folks are loving us now, but it was a challenge to repair damage that happened under previous leadership…a crisis like no other.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
One of the main books that I actually love is The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight. It deals with how to stop spending time you don’t have with people you don’t like doing things you don’t want to do. It’s required reading for anyone in a leadership position.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
I can take this back to when I was getting my Master of Social Work degree. I attended Catholic University and the school is rooted in Catholic teaching. I am not Catholic, so it was hard to be in that space since I wasn’t Catholic. The institution is pro-life and all that comes with that. There was a time when the School of Social Work pulled out of the National Association of Social Workers for its support of Planned Parenthood. This was about understanding who I was. Though I wasn’t Catholic, I held leadership roles on campus and it was important that we showed up for social justice issues. We led vigils around Black Lives Matter. When LGBTQ friends wanted to have a solidarity circle we did those things despite campus push back.
There are times in leadership where you have to be clear about where you stand. If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. Values can never be shaken or moved. I am clear on where I stand and my values are rooted in the work I do. All forms of oppression are connected. I am bringing the margins to the center, shaking up the national discourse, and doing that in a very thoughtful and intentional way that yields results is the ultimate goal.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
Every day I am reclaiming my time, and what I mean by that is I am very clear that it is important that I put Indira back on the to do list. I don’t say yes to everything. I don’t show up to every meeting. I’m intentional about the appearances I make. Doing this work, it’s hard not to get caught up in the hustle and bustle. I need to devote the same time to work as to my personal life. I’m intentional about when I stop responding to email. Today I don’t have anything on my calendar except a meeting at 3 pm. I’m being mindful about putting my time back on my schedule. Time is valuable. Every day is reclaiming my time because of what I do and what I am charged with doing. Time is easily taken up by other people, places, and things. I work really hard to be mindful about to what I say yes and no, and I understand that “No.” is a complete sentence.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
Trying to get enough sleep. Trying to do things that put my body in a calm state. In this work, I am always on a high activated level. I don’t get enough sleep.
I do a lot of reading. Every CEO or person in leadership should read.
Spending time with people who fill my soul is important as well. I’m big on travel and vacations, short-term or long-term. Traveling is a part of the way I recoup.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
1) There is no substitute for integrity. You cannot have leadership without integrity and accountability; they go hand in hand. I tell my staff all the time that it is my job to make the hard decisions and do what’s in best interest of our agency. Sometimes those decisions will not be popular. I’ve made hard decisions related to staff layoffs and they were not popular but I was focused on the mission. I consider the issue, the impact, and the risk. Being in charge of an agency is a responsibility like no other. I can’t be a people pleaser. It’s important to me that I have a clear heart and mind and operate in truth and integrity.
2) Always focus on the mission and the work and you will never fail.
3) In the midst of it all, remember who you are. The journey to leadership is not easy. When leadership is tried and tested, you have those lonely moments when no one is liking you. You need to remember what you are charged with doing and follow that guidance.
4) Own what happens on your watch. This comes from a humble and vulnerable place. Brené Brown says “you cannot get to courage without walking through vulnerability.” It was hard for me to be vulnerable about the situations that did not happen on my watch, but I knew this was not about Indira. It was about DCRCC — about the agency’s mission — and I needed to take myself out of it. In order for me to repair relationships, I had to walk through vulnerability and that made all the difference in the world.
5) It is really important to have people in your life — particularly your personal life — who will hold you accountable for self-care, for leadership…folks with whom you can be completely naked. This is really important for Black women aspiring to be leaders. Whatever that accountability circle looks like is really crucial. It doesn’t necessarily have to be fellow Black women, but folks you know and who you trust. I am clear that every sister is not a sister and every skin folk is not kin folk. In leadership, you need people who will tell you the hard truth and hold you accountable.